Friday, March 12, 2010

Think before you text - making donations via SMS

Just over a month ago I wrote about the impact of new media, particularly Twitter and the ability to donate funds via text messaging. I've continued to think about this topic, and recently wrote a paper specifically on the subject of text message donations. There's more detail in the paper; you can head over to Scribd or SlideShare and give it a read if you like.

The impact of text messaging was undeniable for Haiti donations. Over 30 million dollars pledged to relief efforts, and most of it done via text. It's fantastic that so many individuals want to pitch in, and that mobile technology has made it easier than ever before to immediately satisfy the desire to help. The success of fund raising via text has been tremendous.

While the ease and volume of donating via text message had an undeniable impact, several details of this approach need to be reviewed to provide a more complete portrait of text-based giving. By considering the full cycle of text donations, including processing time, fees associated with mobile giving, and systemic limitations, a more informed opinion can be formed to address the question of whether or not this is a viable long term philanthropic strategy.

Others have written about this as well; check out these posts for additional information.

From the individual donor perspective, there is instantaneous satisfaction. For example, if you wished to donate $10 to the Red Cross to support relief efforts in Haiti, all you would have needed to do is send a text message with the word “HAITI” to 90999. A confirmation text would arrive almost instantly, and once you responded in the affirmative a second message thanking you for your generosity would be received. Thus, you would assume that $10 is now on the way to Haiti by way of the Red Cross.

The actual course of action, however, is not as expeditious. Behind the scenes, the following activities take place:
  1. You send a text message to your organization of choice
  2. You wait for your phone bill
  3. You pay your phone bill
  4. Your wireless carrier pays an intermediary set up for such funds
  5. The intermediary pays the charity you selected

When all is said and done, it can take 60-120 days for your donation to make it to the intended organization, pending the timing of the billing cycle and how quickly you remit payment. Thus, your full donation amount would make it to its destination as intended; it simply would take longer than you probably anticipated. 

The wireless service provider’s current position as an intermediary is problematic and makes text message donations a less appealing approach. The general focus for these companies generating maximum profit (they are, after all, commercial entities), evidenced in part by the fact that there are even charges associated with text messaging, an activity that requires little from an infrastructure standpoint and is arguably free.

Until a universal “crisis response” policy is created by the industry – or the FCC and other affected parties working with the industry – outlining what fees are waived, when they are waived, and guidelines for rapid fund disbursement is established, it is cumbersome to involve them in ongoing philanthropic efforts. It only delays the distribution of funds to the intended organizations and places arbitrary limits on the amount that can be donated by a single person.

I know there is an active community out there developing ideas and applications that leverage mobile technology to connect organizations and causes to those who are interested in participating. This is where we should be going, and I believe future efforts will bypass text messaging without sacrificing the ability to immediately take part.

Until then, I'm sticking to the web to make my donations: easy, unlimited in the amount you can donate, and it goes immediately to the agency you wish to support.

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